Ancient mythological texts in narrative or poetic form that describe the origins and structure of the created world.
Myths are stories that describe the interaction of the divine and human worlds, with the purpose of explaining why certain things are the way they are. Creation myths, then, are mythological stories that explain how the world came into being, but more important, they explain why the world is structured the way it is and why it functions as it does. Creation myths in the ancient Near East share certain generic features and religious perspectives. Scholars have increasingly drawn on these ancient Near Eastern creation myths to better understand the literary and conceptual background of the primeval history in Gen 1–11.
Creation Myths in the Ancient Near East
Egyptian Creation Myths
Egyptian cosmology (concerning the structure of the world) is based on the idea that everything in the world, both human and divine, developed from one primordial substance, symbolized by the watery chaos called Nun. The creator god Atum evolved out of this primordial abyss and then gave birth to the eight other high gods. He created Nut (sky) and Geb (earth) to separate the world from Nun (the abyss; from the Book of Nut, written in the first half of the second millennium BC). Under Nut’s arching form, he created Shu (atmosphere) to hold up the sky. Atum himself turned into Re (the sun-god) and then created Maat (order) to serve as his companion and assistant in maintaining the structure and integrity of the world.
As in the biblical creation stories, the cosmos depicted in Egyptian myths is in a dynamic struggle against primordial chaos that continually threatens to flood back into the world. Reflection on the creation of humanity is rare in Egyptian texts, but one text uses the similarity between the word for humans (rmṯ) and tears (rmyt) to suggest that humans were born from the tears shed from Atum’s eye: “I made the gods evolve from my sweat, while people are from the tears of my Eye” (Coffin Texts, Spell 1130; see Batto, “Ancient Near East Context,” 20).
Mesopotamian Creation Myths
An early Mesopotamian description of creation is found in a fragmentary Sumerian text from 1600 BC, Eridu Genesis, which mentions the creation of animals and humans by An, Enlil, Enki, and Ninḫursag, and narrates the mother goddess Nintur’s establishment of great cities with their kings (COS 1:513–15). The tablet includes parts of the Mesopotamian flood narrative, with a hero named Ziusudra (see “Atra-Ḫasis,” COS 1:450–52).
Another Sumerian text that describes the creation of humans is the story of Enki and Ninmah, which says that people were born from bits of clay that Enki directed his mother, Nammu, to place inside the womb of the mother goddesses. The text connects this initial act of insemination with the human process of procreation: “Thus she created mankind male and female.… By the male inseminating the female will beget an offspring” (COS 1:518). Sumerian myths such as these are important precursors to the more complete Babylonian texts that would later draw from them.
The cosmology of the Babylonian creation story, Enuma Elish, is remarkably similar to that found in Egyptian and biblical texts, but it is based on a combat myth, a story of the creator god’s struggle against the power of chaos to establish the world. In Enuma Elish (ca. 1100 BC), the high gods emerge from the commingling of Tiamat (the salt water in the ocean) and Apsu (the fresh water under the earth). Apsu tries to kill the gods, but he is slain by Ea, the god of wisdom. When Tiamat attacks with her general Qingu, the gods call in Ea’s son, Marduk, to fight on their behalf. Marduk kills Tiamat and then uses her carcass to create the world. He splits her, stretches out half to form the heavens, and establishes the other half as the earth and the underworld. He then takes blood from Qinqu and mixes it with clay to form humans, who are given the task of digging canals and serving the gods. This creation myth serves as a celebration of Marduk and of Babylon. As the upstart, Marduk has attained preeminence over the older gods in his victory over chaos, so Babylon has achieved world domination.
Creation Myths in the Levant
No creation myth is found among the Ugaritic texts from Bronze Age Canaan, although the cosmological worldview that appears in those texts is similar to both Mesopotamian and later biblical exemplars. Most notable in this regard is the conflict between Ba’al and the sea-god, Yam. Water or flood as a symbol of primordial chaos appears in the story of Marduk’s battle against Tiamat as well as biblical texts such as Pss 29:3; 33:7; 74:13; 77:16; Prov 8:29. Another important cosmological motif in the Ugaritic texts is the building of Ba’al’s palace, which in some ways either mirrors or is the foundation of the cosmos. The order of creation is maintained from Ba’al’s palace/temple (Fisher, “Creation at Ugarit,” 320).
Creation Myth in Genesis 1–11
Myth and the Bible
For more than a century, biblical scholars have been comparing the biblical traditions with myths from the ancient Near East. The language and conceptual world of ancient Near Eastern mythology provides a useful lens through which to understand the biblical text in its ancient context. Despite the many similarities, what we find in the Bible differs from surrounding myths in both theological and literary senses.
Recently there have been many studies that take a sophisticated approach to mythological thinking in the Hebrew Bible. Bernard Batto argues that the biblical writers integrated mythological elements into their narrative, a process that he calls “mythopoetic” reflection (Batto, “Ancient Near East Context”). Mark Smith shows the extent to which the Bible’s monotheism is itself the product of ongoing development, which raises the possibility that the earliest biblical texts are more narrowly mythological. Evangelical scholars have also worked to situate the Genesis creation stories within their ancient context. John Walton, for example, argues in Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology that the biblical creation stories function within their “cognitive environment” in a way that is similar to other ancient cosmologies. Walton suggests that the biblical creation stories present a functional ontology, that is, an account of creation that explains the purpose of each element within God’s ordered plan, not an explanation of each element’s origin.
Reading Primeval History of Genesis 1–11
When talking about creation myths in the Hebrew Bible, it is important to examine the whole of the primeval history (Gen 1–11) and not only Gen 1–3. The literary traditions that stand behind the current form of Gen 1–11 treat the creation and flood narratives as parts of the same story. Batto has argued that the Priestly and Yahwistic components of the composite flood narrative serve as conclusions to their respective creation accounts in Gen 1 and Gen 2–3. By reading Genesis 1–11 through the lens of ancient mythology, we can understand better the shape and function of the biblical cosmology. Aspects of Mesopotamian and Egyptian mythology resonate with these biblical texts, though the integration of mythological elements within the narrative form of Genesis has obscured somewhat the conceptual background of biblical terms.
In the so-called “Priestly” creation story found in Gen 1, God creates the world through a process of separation. The light is separated from the already existing darkness, and the waters of chaos are separated by the dome of the sky, pushed back to a holding place above and below the ground. This creates a safe space in which God can create the celestial bodies and all life. This cosmology is very similar to the three-level vaulted cosmos pictured in ancient Near Eastern creation myths. When the flood occurs, God opens the “windows of the heavens” and the “fountains of the great deep,” and that water, primordial chaos, pours back into the world. In essence, therefore, the “Priestly” version of the flood is an exact reversal of the creation in Gen 1.
The Yahwistic creation story in Gen 2–3 is a story of a creative process that progresses in stages. Like an artist, God creates the world in steps, each one responding to the effects of the last. After making Adam, God makes an environment for him. God determines that the animals are not a suitable companion for Adam and thus creates Eve. When the human couple gains wisdom by eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God sends them out of the garden to prevent them from eating from the tree of life and thus gaining immortality (Gen 3:22–23). This story reflects the common mythological motif of humans striving to become divine and immortal. By exiling them from the garden, God preserves the barrier between the divine and human realms. The problem of sin and human presumption continues, however. The “Yahwistic” portion of the flood narrative says that God was grieved by the wickedness of humankind and “was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth” (Gen 6:5–6). The flood and God’s selection of Noah, therefore, represent another step in the ongoing creation process. From this perspective, God seemingly hopes to set things right with the flood, just as He did with the creation of Eve after the animals and the exile from the garden after the human choice to eat the fruit.
Cosmological and Theological Considerations
The creation stories in Gen 1–3 share many common features with Egyptian and Mesopotamian mythology. John Walton argues, “Not a single element of Israelite cosmology can be identified as having no antecedents whatsoever in the ancient world” (Walton, Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology, 197). The particular configuration of these ancient motifs within the theological context of Israelite monotheism can also be compared with other ancient cosmologies.
The most striking similarity between the Genesis account and ancient myths is the cosmology itself, the three-tiered structure of the universe in which the earth is separated from the heavens by a vault above and supported by pillars below. Heavenly bodies such as the sun, moon, and constellations travel across the sky within the dome of the heavens and serve the purpose of regulating times and seasons. Another similarity is the creation of humans whose purpose is to work the ground that is created through the separation of heavens and earth. However, in Enuma Elish humans are little more than slaves. In texts such as the Eridu Genesis and Gen 1–3, humans have a much higher status in the cosmic order.
An important difference between the biblical texts and their ancient counterparts is the monotheistic perspective of ancient Israel. In surveying the complex interaction between Yahwism and ancient polytheism, Patrick D. Miller notes that the “general absence of myth” in the Bible is related to the fact that Israel unified all aspects of deity within one God, Yahweh (Miller, Religion of Ancient Israel, 26). Rather than seeing the heavenly realm as a site of divine conflict, Israel’s God rules over the divine council as the only true and worthy deity (Psa 82). Other scholars understand Israel’s monotheism more broadly as henotheism, or the devotion of Israel to one God even though other gods exist (Penchansky, Twilight of the Gods, xi). Either way, the creation stories in Genesis emphasize God’s divine sovereignty over every aspect of creation. God is glorified, as Christopher Hays says, through the denial of other deities, a “refusal to acknowledge other gods [that] creates a loud silence” (Hays, Hidden Riches, 72).
From a literary perspective, the biblical writers incorporate mythological motifs, but with a narrative effect quite distinct from that of ancient Near Eastern myths. Genesis 1 describes creation through an act of separation, in a way similar to Marduk’s slicing of Tiamat to form the cosmos. However, the verbs for God’s acts of separating are abstract, in contrast with the Enuma Elish’s use of verbs such as “slit,” “smashed,” “severed,” “bound,” and “tore open” (Hays, Hidden Riches, 68). Whereas the heavenly bodies are divine beings in Egypt and Mesopotamia, Gen 1 asserts that they are merely part of the creation, and inanimate. The “primordial chaos” that God defeats in Gen 1 serves a similar purpose to that of Tiamat in Enuma Elish, but it is not a personified deity. However, God refers to a plurality of divine beings in the cohortative, “let us make humankind in our image” in Gen 1:26—a command that some have interpreted to suggest the presence of other divine beings. Within the literary thread of Genesis as it stands, this pronoun may also refer to a divine plurality within God or to angelic companions within the divine court. The purpose of the text is not to make a claim about the nature of the divine world, but to establish the centrality of humankind in the created order (Holland, Gods in the Desert, 218).
Central to both ancient Near Eastern and biblical mythological traditions is the notion of a divine struggle against the power of chaos that threatens to undo creation. In his classic work, Creation and the Persistence of Evil, Jon D. Levenson argues that “chaos” is the key to understanding the reality of suffering in the world; it is a non-personified force that strains against the boundaries that God established in the creation of the world. However, though Genesis 1 echoes the idea of creation through violent conflict with chaos, God creates by speaking a word, not through a battle or divine conflict. Mark Smith describes this as “a paradigm shift in the presentation of creation.” The biblical text “shows only a hint of this old tradition” of conflict leading to creation (Smith, Origins, 168). Humans are then called to participate with God in maintaining the healthy boundaries of creation through tabernacle worship.
Selected Resources for Further Study
Batto, Bernard. “The Ancient Near East Context of the Hebrew Ideas of Creation.” Pages 7–53 in In the Beginning: Essays on Creation Motifs in the Ancient Near East and the Bible. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2013.
Batto, Bernard. Slaying the Dragon: Mythmaking in the Biblical Tradition. Louisville, KY.: Westminster John Knox, 1992.
Fisher, Loren R. “Creation at Ugarit and in the Old Testament.” Vetus Testamentum 15 (1965): 313–24.
Hays, Christopher B. Hidden Riches: A Sourcebook for the Comparative Study of the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East. Louisville, KY.: Westminster John Knox, 2014.
Holland, Glenn S. Gods in the Desert: Religions of the Ancient Near East. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.
Levenson, Jon D. Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994.
Miller, Patrick D. The Religion of Ancient Israel. Louisville, KY.: Westminster John Knox, 2000.
Penchansky, David. Twilight of the Gods: Polytheism in the Hebrew Bible. Louisville, KY.: Westminster John Knox, 2005.
Smith, Mark S. The Priestly Vision of Genesis One. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010.
———. The Early History of God: Yahweh and Other Deities in Ancient Israel. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003.
———. The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Walton, John. Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2011.
BRYAN D. BIBB
Bibb, B. D. (2016). Creation Myths. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.